MONTGOMERY — The celebration launch of the Alabama Emerald Coast Conference of the Global Methodist Church kicked off in Montgomery on Friday.

For years, the United Methodist Church (UMC) has been embroiled in controversy over denominational acceptance and ordination of LGBTQ+ clergy and same-sex marriage.

The UMC is currently undergoing a significant division as traditional churches are pursuing disaffiliation in light of a growing faction of progressive Methodists pressuring the church to change its Book of Discipline, which sets forth the law and doctrine for UMC churches. 

The Global Methodist Church (GMC) began on May 1, 2022. It grew out of the schism from traditional members who hold views of church governance that are not in line with the current direction of the UMC.

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Dr. Lester Spencer addresses Alabama Emerald Coast Conference attendees. Photo: Craig Monger.

The Alabama Emerald Coast Conference (AEC) developed after hundreds of UMC churches began to or attempted to disaffiliate from the UMC. Since December 2022, well over 500 churches in the state have voted to disaffiliate from the UMC, in line with the national trend.

In just over a year, the AEC has added over 135 churches to the conference, with more joining daily. Since its inception, the GMC has added over 3,150 churches.

SEE: United Methodist Church Alabama-West Florida approves rule clarification preventing 275 disaffiliated clergies from receiving post-retirement medical benefits

The AEC began its inaugural conference with a message from the president pro tem. and lead pastor at Montgomery's St. James GMC, Dr. Lester Spencer. The conference runs Friday through Saturday, with dozens of events slated to highlight the direction of the rapidly expanding branch of Methodism. Saturday will feature the ordination of 39 GMC clergy.

After a period of worship music on Friday morning, Spencer addressed the crowd, casting a hopeful vision for the GMC and AEC.

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"We are here to celebrate," Spencer said. "This is a celebration. You can feel it out in the lobby. You can feel it in conversation, right? We're here to celebrate the formation of this new provisional conference, the Alabama Emerald Coast Conference. We're here to celebrate our freedom. And we're here to celebrate the future."

He continued. "I love the fact that we are reclaiming the best of Methodism with the Global Methodist Church."

The theme for the conference is "offer them Christ," a famed quote from the father of Methodism, John Wesley.

"Those words have rung down through the centuries," Spencer said. "It's our rally cry. It's who we are. It's who we're called to be. It's what I want our conference to be known for."

Spencer has been at the center of the UMC imbroglio in the area for some time. After St. James disaffiliated from the UMC, Spencer lent a hand to other churches facing similar decisions. 

For many in Alabama and nationwide, the formation of the GMC and the ECC offers a beacon of hope for those who take a dim view of the UMC's trajectory.

In June, the North Alabama Conference of the UMC voted to remove language regarding restrictions on homosexuality from the Book of Discipline, its governing document. The resolution approved by The Commission on Petitions and Procedures before the meeting stated that "the current language … on human sexuality has fostered painful division."

Over half the churches in the North Alabama UMC Conference have decided to disaffiliate, part of a broader movement within the denomination, with much of the exodus stemming from the ordination of openly gay Bishop Karen Oliveto in 2016. To date, 51.9 % of North Alabama Conference churches have disaffiliated, and around 60% of parishioners, with others following every month. In addition, according to the financial reports, 2023 giving is expected to be down over 45%, or around $3 million.

Since December 2022, well over 500 Alabama churches have voted to disaffiliate from the UMC.

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